(b. ca. 1400, Rottweil, d. ca. 1445, Basel)
Christ on the Cross1430-33
Panel, 34 x 26 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
The Cross stands in an undulating landscape. The scene is profoundly peaceful, giving no suggestion of the place of execution as recorded in the Bible; the two thieves and the soldiers are missing. Only the mourners stand under the Cross, the Virgin on the left, supported by two female companions, and Saint John on the right, wringing his hands in anguish ; yet, far from conveying a deep sense of emotion, they seem almost like travellers who have stopped to pray by a wayside cross. The donor of the picture is shown kneeling beside the stony path, his hands raised in prayer, his eyes turned heavenwards.
Almost the entire width of the background is taken up by a lake; a town and a fortified castle stand on its rocky shore. They are depicted with such precision as to suggest a definite locality, but the topographical details have never been identified with any known place. However, Lake Geneva suggests itself as one possibility, since the painter spent the greater part of his life in the Swiss countryside.
The motif of the Cross in an open landscape was one with which Witz would have become acquainted through the Netherlandish painters. The nature of the composition, the attitude of the kneeling donor, the mourners in their loose, flowing robes, the landscape and, not least, the fleecy clouds in the sky recall Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. On the other hand, there is nothing in the artist's little-documented life-history to indicate how he came to be influenced by them.
Witz was born at Rottweil in Swabia, probably in the first decade of the fifteenth century. From 1434 onwards he lived in Basel, where he painted the so-called Altar of the Redemption, the several panels of which have found their way into different collections. In Geneva he completed the altar for St Peter's Cathedral in 1444, but thereafter he disappears into obscurity, and in 1447 his wife was registered as a widow. Both the altarpieces show a highly individual and unmistakable style but give no real hint as to Konrad Witz's artistic antecedents. The Berlin Crucifixion is of special interest, in that it was clearly painted in the earlier period of the artist's life, before he settled in Basel. In it one can see the first manifestation of the new realism, which, in the second quarter of the century, begins to replace the courtly, elegant, so-called `soft' style.